The Heartbeat Of Conscience

The fiction of Andre Dubus

Published March 23, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

certain breed of writers remains under the street lamp of the known. Their prose has the familiar cadences of everyday talk, but a speech revealing a graver, more intimate self-knowledge, as if it emerged from the soul. It reflects the way we make sense of the world, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. While their more audacious literary brethren work at the edge of control, hurling words ahead of themselves like hieroglyphs, the realists remain tethered to experiences they can name. They work inward, making their way slowly into the mystery of their hearts. Sometimes they speak in cliches, but beneath their sentences' most mundane surfaces roil depths they have charted inch by inch. They sum up their lives as if they could&nbspbe summed up, as one does when speaking to a lover or a priest. Their stock in trade is truth. They aim at transparency. They are to be judged not so much by the height of their imagination as by the depth of their sincerity.

This is the style that Andre Dubus, whose new collection of short stories, "Dancing After Hours," has just been published by Knopf, has mastered, and that has made him one of the great psychological realists among contemporary writers of short fiction. It is not a voice that will immediately appeal to those who like their sentences red-hot. It lacks rhetorical sizzle, and its quotidian omniscience, its even, quietly lyrical, familiar tone, seems to link it uncomfortably to the middlebrow, to the realm of received ideas. But it endures, a steady literary tortoise when the hares have run off the track.

And it goes deep: Nakedness allows no equivocation. At times Dubus' writing almost resembles a kind of imaginative therapy session: It is as if he had decided that only by enacting the most painful and intimate emotional moments in life could he learn their lessons. Indeed, throughout his career Dubus has created such an enduring, profoundly decent persona that the reader feels certain that he knows the man himself. And, perhaps more important, that he likes him.

Dubus' overarching theme is married life: its banalities, its predictable crises, its blind and sometimes seeing and saving faith, the deep and uncanny knowledge that grows up between a man and a woman after years of the work of living together. To this subject Dubus brings a relentless, meticulous tough-mindedness: he never shirks from facing even the most excruciating emotional truths. He is the Hemingway of the marital safari.

Dubus is not an intellectual writer. His characters are rarely able to escape into abstraction: they exist enviably, at times irritatingly, in the here and now. When they are in love, they're really in love; when they hate, they hate. Like Raymond Carver, Dubus -- especially in his earlier stories -- creates a kind of Country and Western universe in which characters who live first and think second drink, covet, commit adultery, and break, often beyond repair. And like Carver, many of his stories of marriages on the rocks can be almost too painful to read, in such minute detail do they recount the shape of the boulders, the spray, the screams of the happy pair as they go under.

What makes the stories bearable, however -- and what elevates them above Carver's sparer, more dramatic and emotionally jagged tales -- is an articulated moral vision. Dubus brings a singular compassion to even the most unsympathetic characters and sordid situations. Throughout his work sounds the heartbeat of conscience, at once an engine and a call to spiritual arms.

The downside of sincerity, of course, is bathos. And at times Dubus' compassion, combined with his unfailingly earnest sensibility, verges on sentimentality. But he is usually too honest to take feel-good conclusions off the shelf unless his characters have paid for them. So powerfully does Dubus communicate anguish in his stories that even when the conclusions ring false, the impression left is one of a larger, extra-literary truth. For example, in the title story of an earlier collection, "Voices From the Moon" (which, like much of his work, is more of a novella, in both its length and its undramatic sensibility, than a short story), Dubus tells the story of a father who falls in love with and marries his son's ex-wife. Writing with remarkable empathy from the perspectives of all the members of the family, Dubus arrives at, and brings his characters to, a kind of painful peace. If the older son's mellowing is not entirely convincing, so powerful is the tale's moral purpose, and so deeply felt the things that stand in its way, that one is inclined to forgive.

In so many other stories, however -- "Adultery," in which an unhappily married woman is spurred by her lover's terminal cancer to divorce her husband; "Miranda Over the Valley," in which an abortion urged by well-meaning parents shatters a young girl's love; "We Don't Live Here Anymore," in which a marriage's dissolution is sketched in wise, lurid, weary strokes, to name just three -- Dubus unites a majestic moral sensibility with a clear-eyed awareness of the things that fall outside the realm of moral judgment. He observes, without judging, the ways that people haphazardly kill the things most important to them, the ways that fate and deceit and forgetfulness doom the highest hopes. For Dubus, the pact between man and woman is where those hopes are born and where they, sometimes, die. He is not interested in much else.

One of the things he is&nbspinterested in is resistance, fighting, coming back: from injury, from danger, from lust, from ennui, from the despair that is a sin against the spirit. (It is, perhaps, Dubus' muscular Catholicism that keeps his writing green, almost boyish.) And in "Dancing After Hours," his first collection of fiction since a devastating 1986 traffic accident that cost him his leg, Dubus writes of people, especially women (about whom Dubus has always written superbly), who are tested. The stories are not quite linked (although one character, Luanne Arceneaux, appears in several of them), but they do add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, the mournful fatalism of one story balancing the redemptive optimism of another. It is not a flawless collection, but like all of Dubus' work, it resonates in the mind after it is read, like an instrument made of good wood. And two of the stories are quite beautiful.

The least successful stories in the collection are two Hemingway-ish tales about physical survival. In one, a woman remembers how her family fought off sharks when their fishing boat sank. (Dubus describes how the father, without hesitating, jumped back into the water to try to save the mortally wounded captain -- an episode that recalls, without self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement, Dubus' own unreflecting heroism in saving a stranger's life during the accident that disabled him.) In another, a woman beats up two prowlers who threaten to rape her. Both stories are gripping, but neither offers much besides powerfully-rendered action.

More compelling are the stories dealing with the attempts of the lonely and lost to find redemption. The long title story, about a lonely waitress who finds the courage to live again after watching a crippled man and his attendant through a long evening, is a melancholy study of the slow rising of hope. Shadowing this story, its emotional opposite, are several tales of hope thwarted, notably "Falling in Love," a half-despairing tale about the unhappy love affair between a woman and Ted Briggs, a "strong man with sad eyes and a bad knee and a history she could feel in his kiss."

The stories in "Dancing After Hours" constitute an ongoing dialogue about love, and at times Dubus' moral commentary can be a little too explicit. In "The Timing of Sin," for example, a happily-married woman almost commits adultery, but pulls back when she has difficulty getting her pants off -- her zipper lending a helping hand to her conscience. It's a good story, but her self-analysis at the end of it grates. After saying that it was God who saved her ("you can't be saved by jeans"), she rejects her friend's suggestion that it was her virtue that pulled her through. "What I was being was hot. If I take all the credit for getting out of it, I have to take all the blame for getting into it, too. That's too simple, and too unbearable. My job is to try, and to be vigilant, and to keep hoping." Here sincerity has become a didactic recitation of Camus-lite platitudes.

In the collection's two best stories, however, Dubus achieves something new and powerful. In "The Lover" he writes about despair with extraordinary power: there is an emotional finality here, a daringly uncharactistic "literariness" that captures the truth of his character's predicament more acutely than his wonted realism. And in "At Night," Dubus' prose soars to new heights.

"The Lover" is about a stoic, searching middle-aged man named Lee, who is on the sidelines of love after three marriages. Looking back on his first marriage, Lee feels only an ancient bafflement: "The marriage ended much later, when their sexual mischief was far behind them, and Lee would never understand all of its ending any more than he could explain why, on their first date in college, there was already enough love between them to engender the years it would take to have three children and let their love die. He learned how quickly love dies when you weren't looking; if you weren't looking."

Lee likes to go on long walks, "whose purpose was for at least one hour of light to see where he lived, smell it, touch it, listen to its sounds." He has admired a woman named Doreen, but never dared to approach her. In the scene when they connect, Dubus abandons his reasonable-man model of dialogue and emotional comportment for a heightened, almost symbolic style. Ordinarily, a Dubus character would greet a woman sitting in a coffee shop with something like "How's the station wagon?" Lee's first words are "I woke to the sound of rain. It was the first thing I smelled." This is at once wince-producing and close to some wonderful edge. A few moments later, the characters are in bed; after they make love Lee falls apart, crying out his life's anguish in a wild, shoot-the-moon monologue: "Somewhere I missed something. Something my cock can't feel. Even my heart can't feel." His rhetoric is stilted ("We were in bed, and there were all those fins"), but somehow it doesn't matter. What matters is the revelation of this strong and decent man's emotional emptiness -- an emptiness that creeps up on the reader.

"At Night" is the shortest story in the book, and the most perfect. Beginning with the words "She always knew she would be a widow," it consists of four paragraphs about an old woman and her husband. This is the final paragraph:
"But on the summer night when he died while she slept, probably while he slept, too, she woke in the cool dark, the windows open and a pale light in the sky, and the birds singing, and she knew before she turned to him, and she did not think of her children, or of being alone. She rolled toward him and touched his face, and her love went out of her, into his cooling skin, and she wept for what it had done to him, crept up and taken him while he slept and dreamed. Maybe it came out of a dream and the dream became it. Wept, lying on her side, with her hand on his cheek, because he had been alone with it, surprised, maybe confused now as he wandered while the birds sang, seeing the birds, seeing her lying beside his flesh, touching his cheek, saying: "Oh hon -- "

By remaining within his little circle of light, in the place he knows, Dubus has made a world in which nothing human is alien, a world where the last whispered words of a wife stand against the darkness, transfiguring it. And in this story that speaks of endurance and change, his words too are transfigured: The long habit of kindness has worn away their rough edges until they are as smooth and beautiful as an old rock on a beach.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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